Near wotsit: Moving on

I would like to clarify a couple of points about yesterday’s Near Wotsit post:

  1. The incident last week was very clearly an accident, plain and straightforward, no one even considered calling it a near accident/ miss. It was serious and we were very lucky that as little happened as did.
  2. I have never swung a one ton lump of wood 10cm past a carport with a 380k fully pimped-up Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 Roadster parked in it. Never a Lambo. Other brands, maybe, but never that. 😉

On a more serious note, I was thinking about what I wrote yesterday, about how I felt the term near accident was preferable to near miss, but actually realized that I am not even sure about that.

The Oxford Dictionary of English’s definition of an accident is:

1. An unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury

Apart from the element of surprise and lack of intent, first and foremost, an accident represents a system failure. You are no longer in control and the the safety mechanisms of the system(s) you put in place (be this a climbing or rigging system, your traffic management system, a crane or a MEWP…) has failed and no longer performs its intended function. Considering an accident this way raises the question whether an near accident is actually possible.

This reminded me of what Clifford W. Ashley wrote in his book, The Ashley Book of Knots on the correct tying of knots:

A knot is never “nearly right”; it is either exactly right or it is hopelessly wrong, one or the other; there is nothing in between. This is not the impossibly high standard of the idealist, it is a mere fact for the realist to face.

Get that knot right. It's either exactly right – or hopelessly wrong.
Get that knot right! It’s either exactly right – or hopelessly wrong.

So, if Ashley’s standard is applied to work at height, or any activity entailing risk come to that, then either you perform the task correctly – or hopelessly wrong. And if there is nothing in between, that also makes the terms near miss or near accident, whichever one you choose to use, obsolete. Either everything goes to plan, which is obviously the desirable outcome. Or things do no go to plan, then the situation evolves into an incident and if that incident incurs a system failure we are dealing with an accident, which may lead to injury or damage to a person or an object, but does not have to in order to qualify as an accident.

The point I am trying to get to is that maybe the psychological loopholes and backdoors I mentioned in yesterday’s post in how we refer to these incidents go deeper. By referring to something as a near miss or accident we are de facto belittling it and again changing our mental level of acceptance for it and influencing our ability to recognize it as what may be the start of a chain of events that could ultimately lead to a system failure.

So maybe this traffic light only has a green and a red light? Right or wrong, black or white, yin or yang, cake or death!… Whoops, sorry, spun out of control there for a moment.

Looking at things from this angle creates a strong incentive to get things right. Not more or less right, but spot on. Or, if you are lacking a skill, competences or tools to perform the job correctly, to remedy the situation before continuing – rather than to fudge it. Because, again following Ashley’s lead, this would mean that you are not doing the job half-right, but rather hopelessly wrong. And that can then paves the road towards incidents, accidents and/ or system failures.

Yes, it was a big tree today and I had lots of time and head space to think…

Near wotsit?!

I was thinking about this during work today and thinking back to the incident I described in the a wake up call post last week.

Sometimes things go wrong, take an unexpected turn or do not go as you expected: A cyclist swerving round the cones you put up, a limb failing without warning, the angry pedestrian who insists on walking under the tree you are working on, the stub ricocheting off the stem, the telephone cable you oversaw – the list goes on and on.

Usually nothing happens. Sometimes we have close calls.

Then we say things like…

“Wow, that was close, that was a near miss!”

Which got me wondering… and my conclusion was that either I am missing the point – or the term near miss is a gross misnomer.

Let’s think about this: A near miss implies that you almost missed, but did not. Surely then, that would imply that you have hit the target, wouldn’t it? And surely, that is not what we mean when we say things like above – slightly shakily, mind, because we have just swung a one ton lump of wood 10cm past the carport with the tree owner’s 380k fully pimped-up Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 Roadster parked in it because we misjudged the size of the log and the wraps on the lowering bollard? Eek!

It’s a near miss: I almost missed, but I did not, so that makes it… a bullseye?

So no, in a nutshell, near miss for me does not really work.

I believe it would be more appropriate to refer to such incidents as an almost accident. After all, that is what it is in German, ein Beinahe-Unfall, or in French, where they talk about un presque-accident. 

It is important that we understand that these incidents we refer to as near misses are in reality accidents that did not incur damage to a person or an object. Looking at it that way, it also changes ones perception. I am sure we are all in agreement that it is a good idea to prevent accidents from happening. However, if we create psychological loopholes or back doors for ourselves when discussing these incidents, by even avoiding the use of the icky a-word and rather calling it a near miss – because I believe this is what we are doing – , then the behavior leading to these kinds of situations becomes more acceptable, or at least the indication of danger is less strong – and also the incentive to modify it.

Like Al Shigo used to say, let’s call things by their correct names. Let’s call near misses what they are in actual fact, which is accidents in which no one got hurt or anything damaged – and let’s do something about it to prevent this from happening in the future.

Footlocking killed my knees

Or did it?

Statements like this always makes me wonder, especially when talking about ascent techniques. How long do you spend per day ascending into trees? If I had to guess, maybe about a minute per ascent, let’s say two to be on the safe side and then call it four ascents, which seems reasonable – if you’re not cone picking or the like. So that makes a total of about eight minutes ascending. In terms of exposure time this does not seem terribly long.

So that makes me wonder whether it really is quite that easy or whether it is the whole story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing this from a pro-footlock position. I am all for improving the ergonomics of how we work, but feel it is important that we don’t stigmatize one technique and turn a blind eye on other practices that are equally bad or even worse with considerably longer exposure times.

Like what?

Well, take harnesses for example. If you look at pics of climbers twenty years ago, one typical thing you will notice is the x-legged stance they are suspended in. This was due to the pressure the harnesses exerted on the hips. I can remember this from my first harness, which was a Willans, this was in 1990, – which did exactly that. I was determined to like the harness, as I thought it was really cool, but in reality hanging in free space was actually quite uncomfortable, with lots of pressure on the hips that really squeezed your legs together. One of the things people did to reduce this pressure was to use rigid spreader bars between the attachment points.

So I think ill-adjusted harnesses and non-ergonomic harness design are one of the factors that take its toll over the years.

X-legged stance in old-style climbing harness. Image courtesy of Honey Brothers.

Another one is working on spikes. My experience working on spikes is that, especially in hard woods, you have quite high impacts when inserting the spikes into the wood and also when using long spikes you are creating a long lever arm, pivoting over the spike to the shaft and acting upon the knee. Conceivably over the years this may well be a factor in wear and tear to the knees and hips. It’ll be interesting to see in what direction the design of climbing spikes will develop in the future and whether they will take the body shape into account to a higher degree… we shall see.

Blunt cutting tools, e.g. handsaws is another one. Or one-handed use of top-handle chainsaws. Apart for obvious reasons why this is not a very good idea (despite what other people may tell you, putting you had in a running chain is messy. Been doing it for years and nothing has ever happened? Only has to happen once… Keep both hands on the saw and you have greatly reduced this risk), there is also the issue of long-term damage, such as wear and tear to the carpal tunnel and/ or tendonitis.

One interesting realization for me was understanding the difference between Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) and Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD). Thanks, Yvonne, for pointing this one out to me.

Here is a definition of the two conditions:

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are injuries or disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, an disorders of the nerves, tendons, muscles and supporting structures of the upper and lower limbs, neck, and lower back that are caused, precipitated or exacerbated by sudden exertion or prolonged exposure to physical factors such as repetition, force, vibration, or awkward posture.

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a condition where pain and other symptoms occur in an area of the body which has done repetitive tasks (often the arms or hands). Repetitive strain means strain related to actions which are frequently repeated.

Without claiming to understand this all in great detail, I did however find it interesting to understand that we are dealing, speaking in general terms, with MSDs rather than RSIs, which are quite specific to very repetitive motions, such a clicking a mouse when working with a computer or similar activities. The type of long-term damage that may occur linked to tree work is probably in the more general MSD group.

For more information on this topic, a good starting point is the dedicated website of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.

One of the difficulties in these discussions is that we have no control groups.

When considering long-term wear and tear it is essential to take a holistic view, which includes what this person did – and does – before and besides tree work. Maybe someone now working as an arborist started up as a landscape gardner and damaged his back carrying around heavy paving stones – and maybe another person was a very keen cyclist or weight lifter in younger years and used to train very hard for their sport, incurring wear and tear along the way. These persons may now be convinced that they are suffering from conditions caused by their professional life, when in actual fact the truth is more complex – and the seeds of the damage were planted long before they even considered a career in arboriculture.

Personally, and I have written this before, I find it all comes down to balance. This involves many aspects of my life, such as diet, lifestyle, emotional form, physical as well as intellectual stimulus etc. Time and again I come back to climbing and just love it, I find there is nothing better to get me feeling balanced and physically at ease. I am not saying that it’s money easily earned, tree work is physically demanding, but by getting exercise besides work you can compensate for some of the strains.

I find regular stretching morning and evening helpful, also I have found exercise on a rowing machine, such as the Concept 2 machines, builds core stability and musculature useful to counteract niggles in the lower back. Exercising on a rowing machine works well for me, it’s low impact and gets all major muscle groups working – and you go as hard as you want. In the same line, I find body-weight training, with devices like TRX,  a good tool to work on specific ailments, like when I damaged the right rotator cuff in my shoulder. Or to sort out the residual stiffness in my foot/ ankle area years after having fractured it in a fall. Or just for an all round work-out to straighten out my body after a day of funky work positioning.

But again, these are merely solutions that I have found work well for me – I am not generalizing by any means. After all, I am stuck with the body I have, with its specific strengths and weaknesses: All my childhood and youth I used to train for competitive swimming, which I believe developed certain muscle groups that later in life served me well for climbing, but on the other hand, I also know that my lower back is prone to stiffness  and is not super-flexible and my knees are also something that over the years have been an issue. I bear these points in mind in the ways in which I work. So based on my history, I have found the strategies I discussed above to be viable solutions, but they may well not be applicable to somebody else with a different biography (and body) – the good news is it is not rocket science to give these matters some thought – and to find out what works for you.

Yes, my injuries I described above were caused by tree work. But I feel it is important that we understand that we are responsible for our bodies and can do something about it to ensure that we don’t wear it out unnecessarily and prematurely, after all, it has to last you a lifetime! I believe if you are able to listen to the needs of your body, to compensate for strains that your professional life brings with it and don’t regularly overdo things, that working as a arborist need not be more harmful that working in an office. In fact… au contraire! A low-activity, sedentary lifestyle with little exercise and highly repetitive work processes is proven to be highly harmful.

I am looking forwards to the findings of a number of studies that various people are conducting in different countries around the world which are looking at different aspects of this topic.

Arborists and their boots

Duh, managed to delete this one. That’s a blog post in itself: think before you press the delete button. But that’s for another time.

Arborists and their boots are a topic that make me smile.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much part of this as anyone else, but should you one day find yourself at an industry event stuck for a topic to strike up a conversation with, try boots. Everyone (well, almost everyone) seems to have an strong opinion on this one and will probably talk until you drop!

Having said that, I think there is more to this than it just being an arboreal version of Imelda Marcos: The choice of shoe will greatly influence the tactile experience of the climb, depending upon the thickness of the sole, the stickiness of the rubber, construction of the upper etc.. In many ways the discussion here is similar to choice of harness: both form a very immediate interface, once with the body and another time with the tree. Many factors come into play here, such as the shape of your body, your climbing style, environment and trees you are climbing on and type of work you are performing.

Obviously, if you do a lot of felling work, a light trekking boot just won’t cut the mustard. Speaking to Jelte the other day who lives and works in Dunedin (NZ) who was explaining how he and Menno do most of their work on very rough-barked conifers and spiky stuff. So in that kind of environment, a heavier, more robust model of boot is the more appropriate choice.

What got me thinking about this? I got in my new LaSportiva Boulder Xs this morning and was marveling at the transformation they go through in less than a year. In many ways, due to the permanent contact with the tree you almost get the impression as though they become something organic.

Obsessing? No way, just a tree guy on about his boots. Which goes to prove my point… 😉

Thoughts on the relevance of Social Media

“… Because of the nature of digital communication, the nuances of interactions can be lost. What was once a relatively meaningless comment to a friend over coffee, somewhat misconstrued and then clarified in a matter of moments, can now be an enduring statement, seen and misinterpreted by many.”

Rachel Grieve, University of Tasmania

(Michael Bond: Friends in high-tech places. NewScientist. 24 May 2014)

I thought the Rachel Grieve quote above was interesting, as in many ways it reflects the opportunity that Social Media offers, but at the same time the risks that it poses. We gain a powerful tool with which to exchange ideas, thoughts and concepts, but a the same time there is a risk that through frequent re-posting an idea gains apparent credibility that actually lacks the necessary depth of understanding to ensure its safety. This is especially relevant when discussing Personal Protective Equipment.

What is the solution? I believe there is not easy answer to that question. I would suggest that we take the qualities that Social Media offers, the crowd-sourcing potential and creativity, but at the same not forget to also take the second step, which is to ensure we have the relevant data to back up and thoroughly understand the proposed tools and techniques being proposed.

The upshot is, that with freedom comes responsibility.

In a sense, Social Media offers new possibilities in regards to exchange of ideas and communication, but at the same time it imposes demands of each of us to question and reflect statements we make when writing a post on Facebook, uploading a video to YouTube, sharing a photo on Instagram – or writing a post on a blog . If this is not the case, there is a risk that otherwise the medium becomes hollow and meaningless, a bit like high fructose corn syrup in processed foods: Superficially it may taste good, but the nutritional value is low – and ultimately it’s not terribly good for you. But that’s another story.

If we can ensure high-quality content then the industry as a whole stands to benefit from the opportunities that these new media offer. For that to be the case every one of us has a responsibility in working towards that goal.

A manifesto reloaded

In view of the results of the European Parliament elections last week and the high percentage of votes gained by right wing parties I didn’t want to let this slip too far down the blog entries. This is really serious and concerns us all! At the end of the day, if you are unable to respect people, regardless of where they come from, the color of their skin, what they believe and whom they chose to love, how can you hope to respect nature and the trees?

Every country seems to have its own breed of these groups, UKIP in the UK, SVP in Switzerland, Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary, NPD in Germany and the list goes on… these groups feed off – and at the same time nourish – the disillusion and fears regarding the future of parts of the populations, serving them with populist, simplistic slogans and apparently easy solutions, baiting them with empty promises and identifying scape goats and legitimate targets for people to vent their frustrations and anger on, e.g. immigrants, Jews, Roma, homosexuals etc., who apparently are to blame for all of this.

We understand that it is not possible to dissociate oneself from theses developments, no one is on the sidelines and there is a necessity to take a clear stand in these matters. It would be deeply wrong to believe that a professional life can be split off from a private, emotional or political life, as we see this as all being an integral part of the definition of one’s self.

Treemagineers stands for a belief in certain core values, such as mutual respect, inclusion and tolerance. For this reason we cannot accept attitudes or ideologies that are racist, fascist, homophobe and/ or sexist.


We believe that by creating strong networks based on these values – mutual respect, inclusion and tolerance – , a better world can be achieved, step by step, starting in small, every-day matters such as how we interact with our families, co-workers and people around us.

We believe these are strong, affirmative messages to send out to all who preach intolerance and hatred by standing up to them and by answering their slogans with a clear “No!”.

Stanley presente!

Just stumbled upon this shot of Stanley Longstaff at ITCC in Montréal in 2003.


Those of you who met Stanley, I am sure will agree that he was a fantastic person to spend time with. I had the privilege when I met him the first time to attend one of his splicing workshops in Glottertal in the Black Forest back in 2002 – or 2001. Apart from being a inspired teacher in all matters dealing with ropes, Stanley was also extremely warm-hearted, charismatic and a great musician. Every time I listen to the recording of the gig he played at ITCC in Milwaukee in 2001 I crack up, it’s so funny – Raking Up is Hard to Do with Scott Prophett , Rip Tompkins and Dwayne Neustaeter as backing vocalists is a classic! But also very sad, because it reminds you what a big gap was left by his passing away.

Coming from a marine background one of the things that Stanley used to talk about that struck a chord with me was the necessity for rituals and songs to deal with tragedy and sorrow. In one of the Art and Science of Practical Rigging videos he sings a song a cappella for Pete Donzelli, a close friend of his who died on the job in 2000 during a tree dismantling job. I firmly believe this to be true, we need to incorporate such elements into our climbers’ culture, not just for sorrowful moments, but also to celebrate and to commemorate important ones. In that sense, to me this is part of Stanley’s legacy in which he lives on – that, and his songs.

I will be thinking of him when we return to Milwaukee this summer.



Oh, and by the way…

I picked up The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli from WH Smith’s in Heathrow as I had run out of reading matter.

I should have know better.

Anything that shouts at you from the cover “the million copy bestseller” should be treated with extreme suspicion. Should you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t bother getting it. I found it highly annoying. It consists of three to four-page chapters filled with platitudes, or things that – on the surface – initially seem interesting, but are then let down by a trite, uninspired treatment by Dobelli.

If you are looking for clear thought, you won’t be finding it here. Why did I get it? I must have been bored. Or in a daze. Or both.

Dobelli touches topics that have been discussed by others in a more interesting fashion, such as Atul Gawande in The Checklist Manifesto, Complications or Better, Dan Gardner in Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us or James Reason in Human Errorall of which I can thoroughly recommend.

Sorry, Rolf, had to be said… and after all, this is merely my opinion.

Tripple Whammy

I was thinking yesterday about how your mental focus evolves over time and about how you collect mental cornerstones on the way that you construct a foundation around, that you then base your thoughts and assumptions on. Sometimes these aspects of focus may be expressed in key words or terms.

It’s one of the things that always strikes me when watching an Arbormaster presentation, is how this is something that they are really good at, clearly identifying key words and then hammering them home. As a spectator this makes it easy for me to follow the red thread of a presentation and it also gives me a nugget of information that I may choose to take home with me.

For us, when we were launching into what was to become treemagineers, configuration was such a key word. A lot of the issues that Chris and I would discuss during work revolved around how we use PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) components and how we assemble them into systems. Our impression was that if we could ensure correct configuration, the rest would follow. Configuration became a key word that we would use to communicate our point, to identify issues, i.e. misconfigurations, but also the solution, i.e. correct configuration. The friction hitch based work positioning system built around the Hitch Climber pulley was the result out of this process.

Hitch Climber pulley
Hitch Climber pulley

It incorporated a number of novel concepts, such as:

  • system split into two karabiners, one on top of the Hitch Climber to attach the splice into, the other on the bottom to attach the eye to eye sling onto. This set up reduces the amount of sit-back when ascending and also eliminates three-way loading when work positioning on large stems, …
  • correct alignment of connectors: All connectors are loaded along the major axis, as they were designed to be. Also the points of loading are close to the 12mm pins used in the certification process. This ensures performance in line with the MBS indicated by the manufacturer, and finally…
  • rope friendly interfaces: the chosen manufacturing process, hot forging, allowed the Hitch Climber to be designed with flowing, rounded surfaces that are inherently rope-friendly.

These points, in our opinion, encourage and aid the end user to consider correct configuration of his or her equipment.

In time though we came to realise there was another, important point to be taken into consideration, compatibility. It is important not just to ensure that components are well configured, but also that neighboring elements are mutually compatible with each other. These discussions  led to a series of tests a couple of years ago examining the compatibility between ascenders, ropes and lanyards. Compatibility issues can be very complex and challenging to resolve if no guidance is provided by the manufacturers. One output out of these discussions was the presentation Good Choices, Poor Choices – Discrete performance loss, accumulated performance loss and assembling fall protection systems with confidence.

Ascender configuration comparison
Ascender configuration comparison

The third term that forms this tripple whammy is resilience. Here is what the Oxford Dictionary of English has to say on the topic:

Pronunciation: /rɪˈzɪlɪəns /

The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity

This is obviously the missing element when considering system design: You want your system to have the ability to return to its original form after having been loaded, regardless of whether it is a karabiner, a harness, a rigging or a climbing system. In a past blog post I described the high cycle testing we did some years back. Essentially that was assessing the resilience of the material used to manufacture the eye to eye slings under low load and high cycles. Or the testing we did last week in Dunkeld, which was – amongst other things – to take a closer look at the resilience of rigging systems used in tree care.

Resilience can be the result of design, materials or the manufacturing process – or a combination of the above, however it is not something superficial or something that can be added on as an afterthought: Resilience ought to be a key consideration and objective that runs through and permeates the whole design and manufacturing process – pretty styling of a fragile assembly or system is not an acceptable substitute for resilience.

So if you asked me today what I feel key requirements are that we should be making of our PPE assemblies and systems, I would answer you that they shall be well configured, mutually compatible and resilient. If these three points are taken into account I believe that we are on a viable path towards ensuring good system design.

In case you had ever wondered…

Remembered this, made me smile at the time… It was a response to a query on Treebuzz, where someone was asking where he could get hold of some of the material the treeMOTION is made of, seemingly to make his own DIY version of it – ask a question and you will get an answer.

The manufacturers of the harness have finally allowed me to disclose for the first time in public here on Tree Buzz what the base material of the treeMOTION is made of:

It is in fact made of the hide of the exceedingly rare and rather vicious hippogriff.


Today these can only be found in a remote part of eastern Rumania in the foothills of the Carpathians, where for many centuries the Comaneci-Georghiou family have bred them for their hides, as well as for substances made from their apocrine sweat glands used in the preparation of traditional Ayurvedic medicines. In the middle ages hippogriff hides were used when manufacturing suits of armor for the under armor garment, being amazingly tough in relation to their weight, on a par with modern high-tech fibres such as Kevlar etc.

For many years this traditional material was forgotten, but has in recent years experienced a resurgence in a range of uses, for example for the airbags in the Rumanian-built Renault-owned Dacia cars, bullet proof vests for the Rumanian SWAT teams etc.
For us this material seemed an obvious choice, but be warned, it is fiendishly hard to get hold of.

There, now you know, but keep it to yourselves!